Source AP ©

Officials begin evacuations along Mexico's Caribbean coast

The threat of Hurricane Dean has made tourists pack the airport of this beach resort city Sunday caused evacuations along Mexico's Caribbean coast.

Authorities pulled tourists and residents from low-lying islands, but if current forecasts hold, Cancun - the largest resort on the coast and a city ravaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 - would be spared a direct hit by the powerful storm.

Dean was forecast to grow into a Category 5 storm with 160 mph (255 kph) storm before hitting a sparsely populated spot about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Cancun late Monday or early Tuesday.

Hurricane-force winds extending up to 60 miles (95 kilometers) outward from Dean's center - and tropical-storm-force winds up to 205 miles (335 kilometers) - could still mean a rough ride for Cancun and nearby resorts, which are still rebuilding almost two years after Wilma.

Tourists formed long lines at the airport, where 12 empty planes arrived to move travelers out, airport spokesman Eduardo Rivadeneira said.

"All the outbound flights are completely full," Rivadeneira said. "If people don't have a confirmed flight, they shouldn't come to the airport."

The government of the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, ordered 2,200 people removed from Isla Holbox, north of Cancun. About 250 were Mexican and foreign tourists, and more were evacuated from other islands.

Gov. Felix Gonzalez Canto asked airlines and travel agencies not to bring any more tourists to Cancun until the hurricane has passed.

During Hurricane Wilma, thousands of tourists were forced to spend several days at improvised shelters.

"It's preferable to lose two days of hotel occupancy rather than face a larger problem of having to take a large number of tourists to shelters," Gonzalez Canto said in a public meeting on storm preparations.

Wilma slammed into Cancun on Oct. 21, 2005, filling hotel lobbies with shattered metal, marble, glass and muck, and washing away so much sand that beaches were reduced to thin strips. The storm caused US$3 billion (2.2 billion EUR) in damage, the largest insured losses in Mexican history.

Since then, massive rebuilding and beach restoration efforts have been carried out, but much reconstruction work remains and tall cranes dot the hotel strip.

The government canceled classes in Quintana Roo for Monday and set up 530 shelters in schools and other public buildings, with an estimated capacity to hold 73,000 people.

Also Sunday, governments in Central America declared themselves on alert for the secondary effects of Dean, whose outer bands were already dumping rain and whipping up surf on their Caribbean coastlines.

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